Friday, December 29, 2006

Learn to play solo

I am constantly (unfavorably) impressed by the number of would-be game designers who talk about producing "artwork" for their prototype and "getting other people to playtest" a game they've never played.

This immensely limits what you can do, folks. You don't need "artwork" to play a prototype solo. You're the designer, use your imagination! If you keep a good supply of various kinds of 3D pieces around you can come up with almost any piece you need in no time. You don't need laminated cards for a playtest prototype. If you have some blank business card stock around you can hand-make some cards quickly (or use a computer program to do it). If you need a board, hand-draw one if it takes too long to do a sketch version on the computer. I tend to make wargames, and my initial map used to be hand-drawn with grease pencil on transparent plastic laid across an out-of-copyright map downloaded from the Internet and printed large. Nowadays I have become sufficiently quick with CorelDraw that I usually create a computer map before actually playing, but I start with a hand-drawn map.

The first few times a game is played, "errors"--things that need changing--are inevitable. Why inflict this on your preciously-scarce playtester supply, when you can sort them out on your own?

While there are some kinds of games that may be difficult to play solo, a good game player should be able to put himself in a state of mind where he can play several separate sides in a "hidden information" game, sufficient to get the worst kinks out of a game before inflicting it in other people.

If there's an obvious problem, YOU need to find it and sort it out, not wait for Playtesters to do so. Let the testers play a game that's in a reasonable state, not one where they struggle with things that you should have discovered through solo testing. You'll be wasting their time, and yours! Use playtesters to discover problems you cannot see, not to discover problems you would have found if you'd bothered to play the game yourself.

2 comments:

Jeffrey Henning said...

Great piece -- I'm in full agreement. I am always amazed by this tendency. Many amateur game designers simply don't play their own games enough. If they can't be bothered, why do they think anyone else will? I've designed a number of scenarios and variants for some of my favorite games. If I quickly get tired of playing them, then that's a sign about the quality of the game.

Lewis said...

This puts me in mind of a story about Carl Ruggles, an early 20th century American composer of "serious" music. His output was very small, but very intense.

One day he had a visitor at his home (in New England, I think). While the visitor sat quietly, Ruggles played the same chord on the piano, again and again. Finally the visitor asked what was going on. Ruggles said something like "if I can listen to this for 20 minutes and still like it, then it might be good". Similarly, if designers can play their game solo time after time, there might be something in it. If the designer doesn't like it, will anyone else?

I can listen to the same popular song (obviously, one that is one of my favorites over the years) for an hour, over and over. (Not something I do every day, but it happens.) If the song isn't extraordinarily good, that isn't going to work. I like to treat games the same way, playing the really good ones over and over. This contrasts mightily with the "cult of the new" folks, who aren't likely to play the same game twice in an evening, nor more than five times ever. Perhaps many of these designers are from the "cult of the new" crowd. It certainly shows in some of the weak, weak games that are published.

Lew